STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
Saturday, September 17, 2016
The DISGRACEFUL Gitmo Exodus
Obama's terrorist-release program
STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
As Barack Obama prepared to enter the final year of his presidency, he sat down for an interview with Olivier Knox to discuss a bold new policy change. He had announced a year earlier that the United States would be ending its decades-long isolation of Cuba and seeking rapprochement with the authoritarian Communists who run the island nation 90 miles from Florida. In this December 14, 2015, interview, Obama described his new approach in greater detail. The change he proposed dominated headlines for days.
There was other big news in the interview—though this the media didn't treat as such. The president declared that he remained committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, despite strong objections from Republicans and some Democrats. Obama had campaigned in 2008 on closing Guantánamo and as one of his first acts upon taking the oath of office signed Executive Order 13492 directing his national security team to shutter the facility within a year:
Almost seven years later, much to Obama's frustration, the facility remained open. Closing it had proved much more challenging than Obama had theorized as a candidate trying to win an election and a new president acting on his idealism. It turned out that the jihadists who remained in Guantánamo were there for a reason. Many of them were truly, as the cliché had it, "the worst of the worst." Al Qaeda leaders, top Taliban officials, the men who planned the 9/11 attacks, veteran jihadists caught plotting follow-on attacks on U.S. interests, and even those al Qaeda operatives believed to be charged with carrying out the next wave of assaults on the U.S. homeland.
The news in the president's interview wasn't that he intended to make good on his promise to close Guantánamo, however belatedly. It was instead the president's attempt to mislead the American people to accomplish his controversial objective.
"I am absolutely persuaded, as are my top intelligence and military advisers, that Guantánamo is used as a recruitment tool for organizations like ISIS," Obama said, endeavoring to create a national security rationale for closing the detention facility. "And if we want to fight them, then we can't give them these kinds of excuses."
This isn't true. There is virtually no evidence that jihadists use Guantánamo as a significant recruiting tool, and national security experts from across the political spectrum who have tested the claim have judged it false.
He wasn't finished. "Keep in mind that between myself and the Bush administration hundreds of people have been released and the recidivism rate—we anticipate, we assume that there are going to be—out of four, five, six hundred people that get released—a handful of them are going to be embittered and still engaging in anti-U.S. activities and trying to link up potentially with their old organizations," Obama said.
That wasn't true. When Obama made this claim, 653 detainees had been released. Of that group, 196 had been confirmed (117) or suspected (79) of returning to jihadist activity upon their release. Those numbers came from the office of the director of national intelligence and represent the U.S. government's official count of Guantánamo recidivism. Nearly one-in-three former detainees returned to the fight, not a "handful," as the president suggested.
There was more. "The bottom line is that the strategic gains we make by closing Guantánamo will outweigh, you know, those low-level individuals who, you know, have been released so far."
Again, false. The U.S. government—under George W. Bush and Barack Obama—has released dozens of veteran jihadists whose terror résumés include senior positions in al Qaeda and like-minded groups. And of course Obama had himself transferred five senior Taliban officials to Qatar in order to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl.
So, at a time of escalated threat levels from international terrorists, the president of the United States is releasing dangerous jihadists against the advice of the military and intelligence professionals who have studied the threat for years, and he's lying to the American people to downplay the threat.
That's news. And yet a review of press briefing transcripts from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House over the two weeks after Obama's claims shows that his interview didn't generate a single follow-up question. Not one.
Hence the president, having paid no cost for misleading the American people on such a crucial matter of national security, is moving forward undeterred. Vice President Joe Biden, at a press conference in Stockholm late last month, said his "hope and expectation" is that Guantánamo will be closed by January 20, 2017.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has transferred from Guantánamo al Qaeda operatives who were working directly for the men who planned the 9/11 attacks. Obama's Periodic Review Board has approved for transfer a veteran jihadist who was identified in the 9/11 Commission report as an individual who "recruited 9/11 hijackers in Germany." The administration is preparing to release or transfer many remaining jihadists judged by U.S. military and intelligence professionals to be "high-risk" detainees who would almost certainly return to the fight if freed.
As the administration's urgency increases, so will its deception. And so, too, will the dangers to the American people.
The 'Karachi Six'
On September 11, 2002, Pakistani forces stormed three al Qaeda safe houses in Karachi. Their targets were Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for the 9/11 hijackings one year earlier, and Hamza al Zubayr, who was planning to attack hotels frequented by Americans. Both Binalshibh and Zubayr worked for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the chief architect of 9/11. At Binalshibh's safe house, the residents held knives to their own throats in a desperate attempt to stall their enemies' advances. Their gambit failed and Binalshibh, a native of Yemen, was captured. Elsewhere in Karachi, at another al Qaeda guesthouse, Zubayr was killed during an intense firefight that lasted hours.
In all, 10 people were captured during the raids. The detainees included six other Yemenis who were later dubbed the "Karachi Six" by U.S. intelligence officials. Five of them were detained at Zubayr's safe house after the shootout with Pakistani forces. One of them was captured alongside Binalshibh. All six were transferred to Guantánamo on October 28, 2002.
Three days after the raids, on September 14, 2002, President George W. Bush praised the operations in Pakistan during a press conference with Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "We're making progress in the war against terror," Bush said. "I tell the American people all the time that we're doing everything we can to protect our homeland by hunting down killers one person at a time." The president added: "Thanks to the efforts of our folks, and people in Pakistan, we captured one of the planners and organizers of the September the 11th attack that murdered thousands of people."
That was then.
Since the beginning of this year, at least five members of the "Karachi Six" have been approved for transfer by the Obama administration. Two of them, including the man captured at the side of this planner and organizer of the September 11th attack—Ramzi Binalshibh—were sent to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in August. When the Department of Defense announced their transfer from Guantánamo, along with 13 others, it thanked the UAE "for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility." The implication was clear: It was inhumane for the United States to continue holding the jihadists.
A senior UAE official tells The Weekly Standard that the men will be kept in a military facility that allows them internal freedom of movement but includes "strict monitoring" to ensure that they cannot escape.
The Pentagon said nothing about the dangers posed by the detainees. Nor was there any mention of the fact that the decision to transfer them reversed years of warnings from U.S. military and intelligence professionals about the Karachi Six.
U.S. intelligence analysts had assessed that the Karachi Six were slated to take part in terrorist attacks ordered by KSM and orchestrated by Zubayr and Binalshibh. At a minimum, the professional analysts concluded, they were part of the support network that helped with Zubayr's plotting against American targets in Karachi. But intelligence officials thought these al Qaeda operatives may have been involved in something even more troubling: KSM's plans to target the American homeland once again. Whatever their specific plans, there was broad consensus among U.S. military and intelligence officials—based on extensive intelligence reporting from multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, including in-person interrogations with other senior al Qaeda leaders—that the men captured in Pakistan on September 11, 2002, were dangerous al Qaeda operatives determined to attack the United States and its interests.
Then, suddenly, in late 2015, the Obama administration reversed these conclusions, describing four of the Karachi Six as merely "low-level" or "low-ranking" fighters. Multiple publicly available documents illustrate how the Obama administration changed the analysts' assessments.
In 2008, Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility, deemed each member of the "Karachi Six" a "high" risk, "likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests, and allies." JTF-GTMO recommended that they remain in the Defense Department's custody. The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments authored for each of the six opened with this line:
But the Obama administration changed the assessment on precisely this point beginning in late 2015.
In files submitted to a Periodic Review Board (PRB), which was authorized by Obama in 2011 to evaluate the Guantánamo detainees' cases on a regular basis, the administration's representatives conceded that the Karachi Six were transferred to Guantánamo "based on concerns that they were part of an al Qaeda operational cell intended to support a future attack." But, the administration argued, they probably "did not play a major role in the attack plotting in Karachi."
The Obama administration's unclassified submission for each of the six jihadists includes these lines (or similar language):
The file for one of the six, Ayoub Murshid Ali Saleh, who was transferred to the UAE in August, explicitly notes the Obama administration's disagreement with previous U.S. intelligence analyses (emphasis added):
The language here matters. The Obama administration does not claim that the change in the assessment on Saleh was based on new information, but a "review of available intelligence." In other words, they looked at the same information that has driven U.S. intelligence assessments since 2002 and decided it no longer meant what the intelligence professionals had concluded.
Just months after these files were submitted to the PRB, at least five of the Karachi Six were approved for transfer. In four of the unclassified decisions, the PRB wrote (emphasis added):
"Low-level" fighters. Remember that phrase as we delve into the details.
The reporting cited in JTF-GTMO's files and other documents does not support the administration's revised conclusion. Instead, the mosaic of intelligence portrays a very different picture: All six were working for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or KSM's men, including some of the same operatives who planned and facilitated the 9/11 attacks.
During the raid in which Zubayr was killed and five members of the Karachi Six were captured, the Pakistanis recovered a crucial document known as the "perfume letter." The missive, which was written by KSM in May 2002 and addressed to Zubayr, was given this name because of its cryptic reference to "perfumes." U.S. officials initially suspected that this code word referred to chemical weapons or poisons, but they later concluded that KSM meant military-grade explosives.
The "perfume letter" would become a key piece of evidence in the dispute between Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over the value of the intelligence collected in the agency's enhanced interrogation program. The CIA claimed that intelligence from harsh interrogations thwarted an al Qaeda plot against American targets in Karachi in 2003. In the so-called Feinstein report, Democratic senators and their staffers argued that the U.S. government already knew about the al Qaeda threat in Karachi from the "perfume letter."
"Dear Brother, we have the green light for the hotels," KSM wrote to Zubayr. KSM added that Zubayr should consider "making it three instead of one." Consistent with al Qaeda's modus operandi of conducting simultaneous suicide operations against multiple targets, KSM wanted Zubayr to strike three hotels housing Americans at once.
"By early October 2002," the Feinstein report reads, "the CIA had completed a search of the names identified in the 'perfume letter' in its databases and found many of the individuals who 'had assigned roles in support of the operation' were arrested by Pakistani authorities during the [September 11, 2002,] raids" (emphasis added). While it is not clear based on public reporting which members of the Karachi Six are directly named in the "perfume letter," if any, only four other individuals were arrested during the raids.
And there is no doubt that Zubayr, the letter's recipient, was in charge of the Karachi Six. One of them, Shawki Awad Balzuhair, identified Zubayr as the Karachi Six's "operational leader." According to the JTF-GTMO files, Balzuhair explained that Zubayr was "unconditionally accepted as the leader of the group given his stature in al Qaeda" and his experience as a "senior military trainer" at the Farouq camp, which was Osama bin Laden's primary training facility in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Balzuhair has been approved for transfer from Guantánamo.
According to the Feinstein report, another senior al Qaeda operative named Walid Bin Attash, also known as "Khallad," was specifically identified in the "perfume letter." Khallad was directly involved in the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. He also helped al Qaeda prepare to hijack airliners leaving Southeast Asia for the United States prior to the 9/11 hijackings. Al Qaeda originally intended to commandeer planes headed for America's West Coast as part of the 9/11 plot, but bin Laden canceled Khallad's portion of the plan. Months later, Khallad went to work with KSM and KSM's nephew, Ammar al Baluchi (also a key figure in the 9/11 attacks), on the anti-American plots in Pakistan. Khallad and Baluchi, both of whom were captured in 2003, planned to use the explosives left behind by Zubayr and his men in their own operations.
The intelligence cited by JTF-GTMO tied Khallad and Baluchi directly to the Karachi Six. Balzuhair told U.S. officials that Khallad, "visited the apartment" where he and the others lived "roughly every two weeks" and was their "primary facilitator in Karachi," as well as "their link to senior people in al Qaeda." Balzuhair also said that Baluchi "visited to bring money, clothing, and assistance." Additional evidence cited in the leaked JTF-GTMO files indicates that the Karachi Six were working directly for KSM and his subordinates.
Bashir Nasir Ali al Marwalah was transferred to the UAE in August. The JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Marwalah notes that he was captured alongside Binalshibh, the man Bush cited in the days after the raid as a key planner of the 9/11 attacks.
The file includes another stunning detail. After KSM himself was captured months later, in March 2003, he was questioned about another letter he authored that was recovered during the Karachi raids. In this second letter, KSM "instructed" Binalshibh "to tell an individual named Jafar al-Tayyar to be ready for travel."Al Tayyar means "the pilot." And "Jafar al-Tayyar" is better known as Adnan al Shukrijumah, who was eventually killed during a counterterrorism operation in northern Pakistan in late 2014.
For American counterterrorism officials, the true identity of "Jafar al-Tayyar" was one of the biggest mysteries in 2002 and early 2003. Both the FBI and the CIA frantically tried to track him down after he was identified as the potential ringleader for al Qaeda's next wave of attacks inside the United States. CBS News reported in March 2003 that U.S. officials thought he could be the "next Mohammad Atta"—a reference to the lead hijacker on 9/11.
KSM was dismayed that his "Jafar al-Tayyar" letter had fallen into American hands. "When [KSM] was confronted with the letter during a custodial interview," according to JTF-GTMO, "he was surprised that the letter existed, as detainee [Marwalah] was supposed to destroy important documents and correspondence." JTF-GTMO's analysts surmised that KSM's "comment indicates that detainee [Marwalah] had access to operation planning and coordination through his handling of the correspondence."
The Obama administration's reassessment elided this straightforward conclusion, and the evidence that led to it, claiming curiously that Marwalah's "role in al Qaeda operational plotting is unverified."
KSM's letters weren't the only incriminating evidence recovered during the Karachi raids. Authorities also found and analyzed two laptop hard drives. According to JTF-GTMO's threat assessments, the hard drives "contained images of instrument approach charts for major US and European airfields, along with flight simulator software." An analysis by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) concluded that the data on the hard drives could be used to plan another hijacking or to assist in the targeting of aircraft with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). JTF-GTMO's analysts concluded it was "probable" Jafar al-Tayyar (Shukrijumah) was "utilizing the data from the hard drives" in his "operational planning."
Another document scooped up during the raids is especially difficult to explain away. The Obama administration's PRB summary notes in passing that Marwalah's "last will and testament" were "found in the Karachi raids" and "included a martyrdom statement." JTF-GTMO's memo describes this document as Marwalah's "last will before a suicide operation." And JTF-GTMO's analysts added a commonsense observation: "The presence of the document indicates that detainee [Marwalah], and probably the group [Karachi Six] as a whole, were in the final stages of planning suicide terrorist operations."
Why else would Marwalah have written his "martyrdom" message if he wasn't preparing to die? The Obama administration, in its eagerness to rewrite the history of the Karachi Six, didn't offer an alternative explanation in its unclassified summary.
That's not all. Some members of the Karachi Six, including Said Salih Said Nashir, told authorities that they had personally met with KSM. Curiously, Nashir is the only one of the six whose PRB decision has not yet been released to the public. In its unclassified summary for Nashir's case, the administration claimed he wasn't part of Zubayr's plot in Karachi. But Nashir was hardly exonerated. Instead, the administration claimed Nashir "was probably intended by al Qaeda senior leaders to return to Yemen to support eventual attacks in Saudi Arabia," but "may not have been witting of these plans." The summary also notes that Nashir has "admitted to a close association with some of [al Qaeda's] external operations planners and senior leadership, including" Khallad.
In sum, there is abundant evidence that the Karachi Six were working directly for senior al Qaeda operatives, including KSM and his immediate subordinates. Five of them lived with Zubayr, who was plotting against American hotels in Karachi.
Even if one were inclined to accept the Obama administration's spin on the evidence about the Karachi Six, that revisionism doesn't support the conclusion that they were harmless innocents. The administration itself argued it was "more likely" the Karachi Six "were elements of a large pool of Yemeni fighters that senior al Qaeda planners considered potentially available to support future operations." Of course, unlike many of the Yemenis from this "large pool," these six were actually living with the "senior al Qaeda planners" responsible for the Karachi plots. And one of them had already said his goodbyes as a willing "martyr."
Tellingly, the Obama administration previously found that the Karachi Six should remain in U.S. custody. In January 2010, President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force concluded that all six should be detained under the law of war, because they were "too dangerous to transfer, but not feasible for prosecution." It was only under the Periodic Review Board (PRB) process, established by President Obama on March 7, 2011, that five of them were eventually granted transfer. It turns out that is an all too frequent occurrence. (In response to detailed questions about the Karachi Six and the transfers to the UAE, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson said, "Detainee-related information is derived from multiple sources, some of which was gathered by the Intelligence Community through sensitive sources and methods and cannot be discussed publicly. The Department of Defense is constantly reviewing its detainee-related information for accuracy and updating its records as appropriate.")
Transferring Detainees 'too dangerous to transfer'
To simplify: President Obama created two different entities to evaluate Guantánamo detainees and the risks they present to the United States. Both bodies—first Obama's task force and later the Periodic Review Board—were conceived to further the president's oft-expressed objective of closing the detention facility. As the end of Obama's presidency draws near, and the urgency of closing Guantánamo increases, Obama's PRB is finding ways to transfer many of the same detainees that Obama's own task force previously said were too dangerous to transfer.
The PRB's web page describes the body as "a discretionary, administrative interagency process" that was established "to review whether continued detention of particular individuals held at Guantánamo remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."
To date, according to a review of government filings conducted by The Weekly Standard, the PRB has issued a ruling in 52 cases. Thirty-three detainees have been approved for transfer by the PRB. The PRB determined that continued detention of 19 Guantánamo detainees "remains necessary" to protect the "security of the United States." This means that the PRB has approved Guantánamo detainees for transfer in nearly two-thirds of the cases it has heard.
This is a stunning success rate for these particular detainees. To put it in perspective, keep in mind that Obama's own Guantánamo Review Task Force previously assessed all 52 of these detainees and determined that none of them—not one of them—should be transferred or released. Twenty-eight of the 33 detainees approved for transfer by the PRB had been deemed "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" by Obama's task force. The remaining five approved for transfer by the PRB were referred for prosecution by Obama's task force. But instead of being prosecuted, they have either already been transferred or will be.
To add some additional perspective, keep in mind that Obama's task force decided that nearly two-thirds of the 240 detainees remaining at Guantánamo as of January 2009 could be transferred. The task force made it clear that the detainees approved for transfer were not deemed innocent. Nor were they considered non-threats. Instead, Obama's task force concluded that the security risks they posed could be adequately mitigated. In many of these cases, Obama's task force decided to transfer detainees who had been deemed "high" risks by the military and intelligence professionals at JTF-GTMO. That is, Obama's task force was willing to accept the dangers these detainees' presented to further the president's desire to close Guantánamo.
Regardless, even Obama's task force drew the line at transferring the detainees who have been evaluated by the PRB. But roughly two out of every three of them have won transfer under the PRB process.
Simply put: The Obama administration is transferring many of the detainees the administration itself previously deemed to be the worst of the worst—including at least five members of the Karachi Six and the man long suspected of recruiting some of the 9/11 hijackers.
Al Qaeda's Forrest Gump?
The 9/11 Commission published its final report in 2004. The lengthy account connects the dots on the key al Qaeda figures who carried out the most devastating terrorist attack in history. On page 165 of the report, readers are introduced to a Mauritanian named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who is described as a "significant al Qaeda operative." Slahi was "well known to U.S. and German intelligence, though neither government apparently knew he was operating in Germany in late 1999," the commission's report explained. Slahi's presence in the heart of Europe proved to be crucially important. An appendix to the report makes clear why: Slahi "recruited 9/11 hijackers in Germany."
Indeed, Slahi facilitated the travel to Afghanistan of the aforementioned Ramzi Binalshibh and at least two of the 9/11 hijackers. (Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, used the same route as those three, but apparently didn't receive instructions from Slahi directly.) The four jihadists who traveled to Afghanistan on Slahi's advice are known to history as the Hamburg Cell. Three of them piloted hijacked planes on 9/11. Al Qaeda probably could not have pulled off the attacks without them.
Slahi was detained in late 2001 and shipped to Guantánamo in 2002. He has been held at the facility ever since. As reflected in the 9/11 Commission report, U.S. intelligence professionals have long considered him to be a key al Qaeda recruiter.
On July 14, 2016, the PRB approved Slahi for transfer, finding that "continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States." Essentially, the PRB believed Slahi and his advocates when they said he wanted to begin his life again in peace. The PRB's unclassified decision cited Slahi's "candid responses" to its questions, including "recognition of his past activities," but didn't provide any further details. The PRB believes there are "clear indications of a change in [Slahi's] mindset." He will be transferred.
Slahi's detention at Guantánamo has long been controversial because he was treated harshly during interrogations. Slahi was one of a few detainees subjected to a special interrogation regime in Cuba. Human rights activists and anti-Guantánamo zealots have not been content to denounce the manner in which Slahi was questioned; they have turned Slahi into something of a living martyr. They claim he was essentially the jihadist Forrest Gump. According to his advocates, even though Slahi admittedly swore allegiance to al Qaeda in the early 1990s and repeatedly assisted various al Qaeda operatives through the years thereafter, he somehow wasn't really an al Qaeda man. They've characterized his meeting with the Hamburg Cell as a jihadist sleepover—innocent and misunderstood. Slahi himself pitches a version of this sanitized story in his widely acclaimed autobiography, Guantánamo Diary, which is a New York Times bestseller.
President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force concluded in 2010 that Slahi should remain in detention under the law of war, because he was too dangerous to transfer. But the administration didn't fight hard to keep him in detention during the PRB process. The administration's unclassified summary for the PRB notes: "He facilitated the travel of future 9/11 operational coordinator Ramzi [Binalshibh] . . . and two future 9/11 hijackers to Chechnya via Afghanistan in 1999." This is mostly accurate, but leaves out a key point. According to the 9/11 Commission, Binalshibh and the others wanted to join the jihad in Chechnya. It was Slahi who convinced them to go to Afghanistan for training first.
The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Slahi references a constellation of other al Qaeda personalities in his life. For instance, Slahi showed up in Montreal in November 1999, just weeks before Ahmed Ressam, who was trained in Afghanistan and relocated to Montreal, began his journey for Los Angeles. Ressam intended to detonate a car bomb packed with explosives at the LAX airport as part of the "Millennium Plot." Ressam was arrested in mid-December 1999 before he could complete his mission. JTF-GTMO's analysts concluded that Slahi "had prior knowledge" of Ressam's plan and had "contact with extremist cells in Canada planning for that attack." Slahi disputes this, and the government's PRB summary doesn't mention the connection.
Court documents show that, in January 1997, Slahi sent a fax to a known al Qaeda operative named Christopher Paul. In it, Slahi asked for Paul's help in finding "a true Group and Place" for "some Brothers" who wanted to wage jihad. The fax is significant because Slahi sent it years after he and his boosters now claim that he had forsworn al Qaeda. In 2008, Paul pleaded guilty in an American court to conspiring to bomb targets in Europe and the United States.
Slahi also routinely consorted with a relative, a jihadist known as Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who was once one of al Qaeda's most senior ideologues. The administration noted in its PRB summary that Slahi "established a broad network of terrorist contacts while living in Germany, Canada, and Mauritania." (Again, Slahi's advocates portray his terrorist network as a benign Rolodex of acquaintances who just happened to be al Qaeda.) While "most of his extremist contacts have since been detained or killed," Abu Hafs al Mauritani is "currently residing in Mauritania." Abu Hafs "could provide him [Slahi] with an avenue to reengage, should he decide to do so," the administration noted. Abu Hafs is also referenced in the 9/11 Commission report as one of a handful of bin Laden subordinates who may have opposed the suicide hijackings, although he later praised them. Abu Hafs was also suspected of involvement in earlier terrorist plots.
Judging by his Twitter feed (@AbuHafsMuritani) and Facebook page, Abu Hafs remains committed to jihad. In recent tweets, for example, he lamented the death of an al Qaeda military commander in Syria and praised the battlefield gains of al Qaeda front groups fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime. Mauritania is not exactly committed to keeping men such as Abu Hafs and Slahi under wraps. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound show that al Qaeda negotiated a truce with the government of Mauritania. In exchange for not committing any terrorist attacks inside the country, al Qaeda was given free rein to proselytize.
Perhaps Slahi won't rejoin al Qaeda's ranks once he is let go. But he doesn't have to in order to damage American interests. The U.S. government doesn't consider ex-Guantánamo detainees turned anti-American propagandists to be recidivists. But there is no question that they go far beyond any legitimate criticisms of the United States in making up lies about America, their time in Cuba, and their own biographies. Slahi could easily fill this role; his book is already an international sensation. Slahi was undoubtedly subjected to rough, coercive interrogations. The world will continue to hear that part of the story, probably with some exaggerations. And Slahi's claim of innocence will go largely unchallenged.
The Guantánamo Blame Game
The linchpin of President Obama's argument for closing Guantánamo is that it is a major recruiting mechanism for terrorists. In December 2010, Obama claimed that Guantánamo is "probably the number one recruitment tool that is used by" al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. "And we see it in the websites that they put up. We see it in the messages that they're delivering," Obama added. He made a similar argument at a press conference on December 18, 2015, saying, "We see how Guantánamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam." The Obama administration still has not offered any empirical evidence to substantiate this argument. Anyone even casually familiar with jihadist propaganda knows that Guantánamo is infrequently mentioned and is not part of any significant recruiting theme. Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, has released five messages since early August. He didn't mention Guantánamo once.
But Obama clings to this argument as a national security rationale for closing Guantánamo. He has claimed that Guantánamo "was an explicit rationale for the formation of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," or AQAP. Like so many of Obama's claims about Guantánamo, this is false.
At no point in time did AQAP's leaders, some of whom were once held at Guantánamo, say that the facility was the reason they launched their organization. If anything, AQAP's history shows the dangers of releasing known al Qaeda operatives from Guantánamo. One current AQAP leader is Ibrahim al Qosi, who was transferred in 2012. Qosi was a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden before he was captured. JTF-GTMO's assessment of Qosi described him as "an admitted al Qaeda operative and one of Usama bin Laden's (UBL) most trusted associates and veteran bodyguard."
In fact, in May, AQAP's Inspire magazine directly rebuked Obama on his claim that the facility is a key recruitment tool, arguing that al Qaeda talks about many issues and Guantánamo wasn't nearly at the top of their list. Inspire cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as other issues, as far more important from a recruiting standpoint and chastised Obama for being pro-Israeli.
As the Islamic State rose in power, Obama shifted his argument, claiming that it, too, was using Guantánamo as a major recruiting tool. Once again, the administration has provided no evidence this is true. Because the Islamic State rarely mentions Guantánamo in its propaganda, the administration shifted attention to the group's use of orange jumpsuits in its snuff videos. This is supposedly a subtle, indirect reference to Guantánamo. The Islamic State is not known for its subtlety, of course, and it has never said that it uses orange jumpsuits because of Guantánamo. Orange jumpsuits are ubiquitous, the standard garb in prisons around the globe, including the Iraqi facilities where many of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's loyalists were once held. The Islamic State puts its victims in other colors, too, and there is no apparent logic behind which color is used. Moreover, the administration says nothing of the fact that Obama's own policies, including the air campaign in Iraq and Syria, are explicitly mentioned in these gruesome productions.
After the Islamic State struck in Paris last November, killing and wounding hundreds of people, Obama went so far as to cite Guantánamo: "It's part of how they rationalize and justify their demented, sick perpetration of violence on innocent people. And we can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation." Once again, not true. The Islamic State did not use Guantánamo to justify the Paris massacres. Nor has the administration pointed to a single attack—out of thousands carried out by the Islamic State around the globe—that was rationalized or justified on the basis of Guantánamo.
The fifteenth issue of the Islamic State's Dabiq magazine, released earlier this year, carried an article aptly titled "Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You." For starters: "We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah—whether you realize it or not—by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices." Dabiq's editors listed many other reasons, including our "secularism and nationalism," our "perverted liberal values," and our "Christianity and atheism." They did include a generic mention of the imprisonment and "torture" of Muslims around the world, but only after listing Obama's drones and many other reasons, and even then there was nothing—not a word—about Guantánamo.
208 Recidivists—and Counting
"The existence of Guantánamo," the president claimed in 2009, "likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained." But the president has not shown, and cannot demonstrate, that Guantánamo has "created" as many as the 208 recidivists who have now been freed. Just this past week, the office of the director of national intelligence released its latest estimate of the number of "confirmed" and "suspected" recidivists. Most of them, 188, were transferred during the Bush years. But the growth in the number of recidivists over time demonstrates the flaws in Obama's thinking. In January 2009, the month Obama was inaugurated, the Pentagon counted 61 recidivists. Today, that figure is nearly three and a half times larger.
Intelligence officials tell The Weekly Standard that those estimates are undoubtedly low. And there is little question that those numbers will grow—though we likely won't know the details until after Obama leaves office. Sources familiar with the negotiations on Guantánamo transfers tell TWS that when Obama administration officials have insisted on a timeframe for host-country tracking of detainees, the requirements for monitoring soften considerably after January 2017.
In at least one case, the transfer of six detainees to Uruguay in December 2014, five of them "high-risk" detainees, the recipient country had announced in advance that it would not track the detainees. President José Mujica accused the United States of "kidnapping" the jihadists and abusing their human rights and, in a May 2014 interview with the Washington Post, declared that he would not monitor the high-risk detainees after the transfer. "We are not the jailers of the United States government or the United States Senate. We are offering solidarity on a question that we see as one of human rights."
In other cases, just as Obama administration officials have misled the American people about the threats presented by Guantánamo detainees, they've also misled the diplomatic partners who have agreed to receive them.
On January 6, 2016, Mahmmoud Omar Mohammed Bin Atef and Khalid Mohammed Salih al Dhuby were transferred to Ghana. U.S. intelligence determined that both men were committed jihadists. Bin Atef, in particular, was assessed as a "high risk" detainee "likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies." According to JTF-GTMO, he was "a fighter in Usama bin Laden's former 55th Arab Brigade and is an admitted member of the Taliban" who had trained in al Qaeda's notorious Farouq camp. In addition, Bin Atef had "participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces." Unlike many detainees who renounce jihadism—or pretend to—Bin Atef "continues to demonstrate his support of UBL and extremism" and "has threatened to kill US citizens on multiple occasions including a specific threat to cut their throats upon release."
When the transfer to Ghana was announced, however, a statement from the government in Accra claimed the men "were detained in Guantánamo but have been cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities and are being released."
It's almost as if the U.S. intelligence assessment and the statement from Ghana are describing different people. How does this happen? Jojo Bruce-Quansah, the information minister at Ghana's embassy in Washington, D.C., told us at the time that the U.S. government provided assurances that Bin Atef was "never involved in terrorism" and presented little risk. "If that assurance was not there," he said, there is "no way" his government "would have taken the detainees." A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on whether the U.S. government provided Ghana with the full intelligence assessment of Bin Atef.
It's not clear today whether the Obama administration will succeed in closing Guantánamo. What is clear is that, in attempting to do so, the president is willing to free dangerous terrorists and mislead the American people and our diplomatic partners.